Wednesday, January 31, 2018

YOMO - You only marry once

It almost feels like I'm back in grad school. I'm in my second to last five-week module at Gateway to Khmer (G2K), and the last two modules have big culminating projects where we interview a bunch of Cambodians. So for the past week, I've been transcribing data from nine different recorded interviews and starting to organize it into themes.

G2K's classes are all pass/fail, so it's nothing like the rigor of qualitative analysis for my Lehigh thesis. But it's still been a stretch as I try to decipher rapidly spoken words and remember them long enough to type them up. Rewind. Replay. Repeat.  

Each of my eight classmates and I have a different speech act to research, such as comforting someone, correcting a misunderstanding, or warning someone. My topic is persuasion. Before interviewing, I created three scenarios requiring persuasion:

1. You and a friend, Chenda, are invited to your mutual friend Neary's wedding. You don't know many other guests, so you want Chenda to go with you. But s/he's not convinced s/he wants to attend. How would you persuade him or her to join you? (The name "Chenda" can be used for either gender, so I assigned Chenda the gender of the person I was interviewing.)

2. Your younger brother has a long-time friend named Kosal. But lately Kosal has been getting drunk, doing drugs, and sometimes stealing money. He always wants your brother to join him for these activities. How would you persuade your brother to stop hanging out with Kosal?

3. Your boss just announced that your company is hiring. Your sibling is interested in applying, and you think s/he would be a great fit there. How would you persuade your boss to consider hiring your sibling?

For each scenario, I asked these questions:
a. What would you say? 
b. What would you do? (ex. body language, tone of voice, actions)
c. What would not be OK for you to say or do? 
d. How might your approach change according to the listener's age, gender, and social status? (For example, in scenario 2, what if you were persuading your younger sister or an older sibling? Does it matter if your boss is male or female?)

I interviewed 4 males and 5 females, ages 22 to 64,
with various jobs and education levels

All three scenarios have yielded intriguing responses, but the topic that inspired the most reflection for me is the first one, about Neary's wedding. A G2K teacher helped me create a role play that we'll perform in my presentation next week. Most of the "me" lines are direct quotes taken from interviews. 

Part of my role play - I need to finish typing it in Khmer

Here's a rough English translation:

Me: Hey Chenda! Did you get an invitation to Neary’s wedding?
Chenda: Yeah, I did.
Me: Are you going?
Chenda: I’m not sure.
Me: Why not?
Chenda: Money’s kind of tight right now.
Me: C’mon, you should go! You can always earn more money, but you can’t earn back your reputation. Neary’s been our close friend for a long time. If she invited us, she’s counting on us to show up. We need to make time to go encourage her and show her we love her. She’s only going to get married once in her life.
Chenda: It’s just so hard!
Me: If you don’t go, I won’t have anyone to go with, so I’ll have to go by myself. And you won’t be able to look Neary in the eye again. Don’t just throw away her friendship like that. Don’t you want her to come to your wedding someday? Don’t let her down.
Chenda: But I can’t afford to buy a new dress and get my hair and makeup done.
Me: You can borrow a dress and shoes from me - no need to buy them new. And I’ll do your hair and makeup.
Chenda: How are you getting there?
Me: On a tuk-tuk.
Chenda: Then could I go with you? I need a ride.
Me: Sure! It’s better riding with two people than all by myself, because it will be safer coming back at night.
Chenda: But my house is far away on a dark, quiet road. I’m afraid it won’t be safe going home.
Me: If you’re worried about that, just spend the night at my house. It’s on a busier road close to the wedding.
Chenda: That works then. What time should we go?
Me: I’ll come to your house at 2 and we can do hair and makeup together. When we’re ready we’ll leave around 5.

At a friend's wedding in December

Obviously most respondents didn't use quite that many forms of persuasion. And none of them mentioned doing Chenda's hair and makeup for her, though two females mentioned lending her a dress. (I've heard it's embarrassing to wear the same dress to more than two weddings, even in different social circles or years. Women are expected to expected to have professional-looking hair and makeup; fake hair is an option, and fake eyelashes are normal.) While several women mentioned the safety of riding together or spending the night, none of the men did. But almost everyone used the line about weddings being once in a lifetime, and most people also said that Neary was counting on Chenda to be there. 

Getting our hair done for a Khmer photo shoot in 2015

It was my impression that Cambodians invited almost everyone they know to a wedding, and so attendance wasn't that big of a deal. For example, I was once invited to the wedding of a guard at Logos whose name I didn't even recognize. We'd never said a word to each other, but he invited all 50+ staff members. I knew in at least some situations Cambodians felt obligated to go, even when they weren't close. I've heard them complain about all the money they have to spend when invited to wedding after wedding. And I knew you were at least supposed to send cash if you couldn't make it. (No gift registry here - every invitation comes with a small envelope that you fill and bring with you, often putting it into a big cardboard heart. A relative records all the gift amounts.) 

But to my surprise, everyone assumed that Neary was a close friend, or at least spoke as if she were. They felt she'd been intentional about inviting those that were dearest to her, even though she and her family would likely distribute 3-400 invitations to relatives, co-workers, neighbors, and classmates. Still, a couple people told me, "For a funeral, anyone can come. For a wedding, the couple carefully considers the guest list." Since there are no RSVP's, the couple pays for all the guests' food and drink whether or not that many guests come. It brings shame to them and their families if a lot of tables remain empty. On the other hand, I learned that if you get only a verbal invite and not a fancy envelope, you shouldn't feel obligated to go or pay. It can even be an insult, implying that the host doesn't think you can afford to cover your dinner. 

I started asking later respondents, "Would you say these things in real life? Or are you just using all these arguments because I told you to persuade Chenda?" They all answered, "Yes, we've really said or heard these arguments." One even told me, "A wedding is the most important day of a person's life. Until you get married, Khmer culture doesn't really value you." That was revealing. 

This assignment also highlighted the importance of reciprocity in Khmer culture. Why does the family keep track of all the gifts given? It's not to write thank-you notes. Later on, the couple is obligated to give at least that much when you invite them to a wedding for yourself or your child. Your attendance and contribution is quite literally an investment into your friendship, one that can't be replaced by quality time or homemade food. That's why, even though money is a constant concern for many Cambodians, they'll shell out big bucks, rearrange plans, and trek across the country to show up and look the part at weddings - not just of their very best friends, but of quite a few people in their social circle. 

That's not a natural way for me to see it. My default is to view fake eyelashes as a frivolous nuisance, not a symbol of my undying loyalty to the bride, groom, and their families. But even though I wish there were less financial pressure on my Khmer friends - especially females - shifting perspectives helps me appreciate the "why" behind their efforts. They're prioritizing relationships and community. After all, you only marry once.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Confession of an obsession: Andrew Peterson and the Wingfeather Saga

As undergrads at Penn State, a roommate and I had briefly overlapping crushes on the same guy. He was into a little-known Christian folk singer named Andrew Peterson, and therefore so were we. Andrew's voice isn't showy, but his lyrics left us awestruck:

I can see in the strip malls and the phone calls
The flaming swords of Eden
In the fast cash and the news flash and the horn blasts of war... 
We ache for what is lost 

Other songs were playful, like this one narrated by a penny:

I'd give you all of me to know what you were thinking
And if I had one wish I'd wish I wasn't sinking here
Drowning in this well, oh can't you tell?
("Loose Change")

Over a decade later, my friend and I have long since gotten over him... Mr. Penn State, that is. With Andrew, by contrast, I'm as smitten as ever. Perhaps even more, now that I've seen the power of his pen extend beyond music and into literature, and even back again.* I've turned to his music to help me grieve with a little girl and climb out of negativity. He has an incredible knack for combining personal anecdotes with universal themes. I've raved about him to dozens of friends, but never paid full homage to him on this blog until now.

About four years ago, I got wind that he'd written a fantasy called the Wingfeather Saga, aiming for the "vastness of Lord of the Rings" with the "whimsy of the Princess Bride." Since his songs always tell stories, a novel series didn't seem as far-fetched as it might have. I requested what I thought was his trilogy for Christmas, and my parents promised to send it over to Cambodia with my colleague. Before the colleague returned, I visited a friend in China and spent Christmas day with a 10-year-old boy who had received the same three books that morning. "Hey, that's my Christmas present too!" I told him with glee. His mom thought I was joking. 

Once my copies arrived, I was eager to dive in. I really wanted to like them, but I tried not to get my hopes up too much. A good fantasy series is quite an accomplishment, and poorly executed attempts can be painful. What if it sacrifices art for preaching or Christian cheesiness? What if the storyline is predictable? What if it just kind of fizzles?

Unfortunately, between lesson planning and grading, my free time was pretty nonexistent that spring. So I urged one of my students, a compulsive fantasy reader, to take a look first. He soon reported back to me, approving but distressed. "Where's the fourth book?" 

"What fourth book? These three were sold as a package." 

"The third book ends in a cliffhanger! I checked online, and the fourth was just published. I need to know how it ends!" Oops.

We eventually got another book mule to bring it out to Cambodia, and by then I'd managed to start reading. I wasn't surprised that Book 1, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, was whimsical and well-worded. But I was taken aback by how often I laughed out loud at it... especially the footnotes. What kind of youth fiction is chock-full of footnotes?! Peterson spent over a decade thinking up this story, so it's amazingly complex and rich with detail. The footnotes, along with the maps and appendices, round out the colorful land of Skree, where farmers protect their crops of totatoes from pesky thwaps, while children play zibzy and handyball.** But like the rest of their world, Aerwiar, Skree is suffering:

Oh, yes, the people of Skree were quite free, as long as they were in their homes by midnight. And as long as they bore no weapons, and they didn't complain when their fellow Skreeans were occasionally taken away across the sea, never to be seen again. But other than the cruel Fangs and the constant threat of death and torture, there wasn't much to fear in Skree.

Still, concerns lingered at the end of the book. Each episode in the Igiby family - Janner, Tink, and Leeli, along with their mom (Nia) and grandpa (Podo) - was cute but not always compelling. They seemed to stick out their tongues at danger, and then run back to safety. Could the series hold my attention through another thousand pages? 

Yes indeed! Book 1 ends with the Igibys fleeing their home to guard a precious secret from their oppressors (organized under "a nameless evil, an evil whose name was Gnag the Nameless"). As I continued the series, I realized how well Book 1 lays the foundation for the following books. Like Lord of the Rings, Narnia, and Harry Potter, the Wingfeather Saga has many classic traits of an epic (both war and journey), a discovery which delighted me as a Brit Lit teacher. 

The farther I ventured into the books, the more the tongue-in-cheek liveliness reminiscent of "Loose Change" gave way to the stirring depth of "The Far Country." The Igibys are swept into a flood of events that reveal truths - some lovely, some frightening - about themselves and their world. Darkness isn't just "out there" pursuing them; it's among them and even in them. Plot twists abound as good guys betray them and grief divides them and courage fails them and help arrives from entirely unexpected sources. Yet the central story only grows more cohesive and more gripping. 

The later books still have sprinklings of laughter, though far fewer footnotes. They have strong characters with physical disability, with mental illness, with addiction and shame. They contain powerful imagery of brokenness and redemption, the many who bear the cost of one's mistakes, the necessity of family, the beauty of doing the right thing when it hurts, the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. They're not overtly religious and have less allegory than Narnia. But there's a lot that rings true on a deeper level.

I've enjoyed reading reviews from fellow fans. At a friend's wedding, I nerded out with a whole cluster of fans. They deepened my appreciation for the books, particularly for several minor characters. Some readers call the series "this generation's Narnia;" others say that's a stretch. If you're a die-hard fan of Lewis and Tolkien and Rowling, you'll probably find ways that Peterson fails to measure up; the Wingfeather Saga is not without flaws. But it will draw you in if you let it. 

I've been itching to re-read the books since I arrived back in Cambodia, where they've been in the Logos library since I left in 2015. But to my disappointment - and delight - they've been checked out every time I've stopped by. Apparently I hooked enough people, who likewise spread the word, that the librarian says it's still a hot commodity. 

While waiting, I've had fun with updates on Andrew's Kickstarter project turning the series into an animated show. The 15-minute pilot was just released this week. Despite my bias that "the book's always better," I was impressed at the film's quality. It also managed to convey Peterson's warmth and quirkiness. I've shown it to ten kids, all of whom were hooked and barraging me with questions. The older ones were desperate afterward to read the books. 

Why do I care so much about a book series aimed at kids? Because stories matter. In an interview, Andrew cites the quote, "If you want people to know the truth, tell them. If you want people to love the truth, tell them a story." (source unknown) Like Andrew's music, the Wingfeather Saga has helped me celebrate how God takes broken and twisted things and makes them beautiful - not just in the world of Aerwiar or the land of Skree, but here in my own story. 

*See this song taken from Book 3, The Monster in the Hollows. Even more perfect because the singer, Peterson's daughter Skye, is the inspiration for Leeli, who sings this song in the book. 

**Sample footnote: "A delightful sport in which each team tries to get the ball into the goal without using their feet in any capacity, even to move." 

Monday, November 13, 2017

The fine art of correspondence

In my Khmer class this morning, we read a fake e-mail between strangers: a Cambodian guy writing to a foreign girl. It reads as follows:

Dear Julie,

Hello! I want to tell you a bit about myself. My name is Somet and I live in the city of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. What city and country do you live in? I work as a professor at Royal University of Phnom Penh and I'm getting my doctorate in sociology. What do you do for a living? And what have you studied? I'm not married and I also don't have a girlfriend. Do you have anyone? My appearance is as you can see in this e-mail. Based on the photo, how old do you think I am, and do you think I'm handsome? Sorry Julie! I'm just kidding. Don't take it the wrong way. But I hope you'll answer the questions I asked above. Julie! Can I ask you some personal questions? How many siblings do you have? Can we meet up in Siem Reap when you visit Cambodia next year?

Missing you and feeling happy,

It cracked us up. How did he find her e-mail? Can this Julie somehow read Khmer? Is Somet even sure that she's coming to his country? It was definitely livelier than the "pen pal" e-mails I always find in high school language textbooks.

I asked the teacher, "How would you feel if you received a message like this?" Her reply? "Oh, it's common. Male Cambodian strangers often write on Facebook, telling me and my friends that we're beautiful and asking if we have a boyfriend." Hmm. That hasn't been my experience, and I'm really OK with that.

Our homework was to write Julie's reply to Somet. I did my best to answer his questions and use some recent vocab (bolded) but I couldn't resist the urge to create a plot twist, loosely inspired by James Veitch

Dear Somet,

Hello! I was very happy to read your e-mail. I think that you are handsome and around age 25. As for me, I'm 45. My profile picture is old. I'm an only child and a widow with five children. The police in America believe that I killed my husband last year. Ever since then, I've been in hiding in various countries. I heard that Cambodia is not very strict with foreign criminals. Would you like to marry me and live in a remote village, far from the police? I hope you'll agree. I probably won't kill you like my first husband. Sorry Somet! I'm just kidding. Don't take it the wrong way. Please send me $6000 so I can buy plane tickets for all six of us to meet you in Siem Reap next year. Thanks!

Missing you and feeling happy,

I'm not sure my teacher will appreciate it (they say humor is the hardest thing to translate) but it certainly improved my motivation in writing.
(Update: She got a good laugh out of it. She enjoyed my classmates' responses too!)

The ironic thing is that this afternoon, unaware of this assignment, my tutor asked me about a Facebook message she'd received. "It's from an American guy that I don't know. He says I'm beautiful and he's in love with me. What should I tell him?" The message (in English) was very gushy and very general. I was pretty sure the next message would say, "Can you please send me money?" I advised her to ignore it: advice she'd also heard from her son and neighbor. (Though, come to think of it, maybe I should have asked if she'd like to reuse my reply?) 

Oh, social media. Making the world smaller - by enabling people to flirt, stalk, and bilk across international borders.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Margin: not just for notebooks anymore

Today didn't exactly go as planned.

This morning, I planned to attend part of a women's prayer time at my Khmer church. I wasn't sure I'd written down the correct time several weeks back, so I asked two friends. One didn't know, and the other didn't reply in time. When I showed up, nobody was there. The drive was hot and fruitless.

I came home and thought, "This is good, I have time to clean the apartment!" But while cleaning the sink, I pushed down the plug, and there's no lever to push it back up. (You're supposed to be able to push it down once to lock it and once more to spring it back up, but the spring part doesn't work anymore.) I disassembled the pipes and spent nearly an hour cleaning out black gunk and hair, and trying to push up the plug with chopsticks. My roommate said it's the only way to do it, and she's succeeded multiple times before, but neither of us could get it to work. I was left with pruney fingers, pipe sections on the floor, a couple of broken chopsticks, and a still-plugged sink. 
(Update: She managed to fix it the next day!)

This afternoon, my teammate Victor came with his pickup truck to help me pick up a desk and a sofa. Getting the desk was fine, but the sofa couldn't make it out of its previous owners' apartment. After an hour of wrangling it, removing legs, and trying every possible twist and turn, we gave up. The husband was baffled because they'd gotten it in there somehow in one piece. We drove home tired, sweaty, and sofa-less. This poor couple is moving out of the country tomorrow after 25 years here, and as I was leaving, he was surrendering the keys to their apartment. They didn't get their money for the sofa, but they DID get a wall full of scratches and an angry landlord. What a sad way to spend their final moments in a cherished home. (His ability to take it all in stride was a great example for me, though.)
Happy about my "new-to-me" desk, though!
A day like this could have set me off big time, causing major frustration if not tears. But I'm fine. Do you know why?
  • Yesterday afternoon after Khmer class, I chose to savor time with a friend, even though it meant I didn't have time to run two errands across town, which I really wanted to accomplish. When I came home, I took a much-needed nap. Driving across town for those errands would have put me beyond tired. Monday's not too late to get them done.
  • I slept nine hours last night, up from seven most nights recently. Seven has not been cutting it.
  • I had a good prayer time this morning. That hasn't been true every day.
  • I ate well and drank plenty of water today.
  • The power stayed on all day, so I had access to a fan most of the time.
  • During my workout this morning, I listened to my "Help!" playlist. These songs reminded me of truths that transcend sofas, sweat, and sinks. Truths like...
    • God's goodness satisfies me (Audrey Assad - "I Shall Not Want")
    • God is my refuge and my strength (Eoghan Heaslip - "A Shield About Me")
    • God holds onto me when I can't hold onto Him (Keith & Kristyn Getty - "He Will Hold Me Fast")
  • I didn't have much planned for today. I had a "wish list" of tasks I'd like to accomplish eventually, but I was OK with them not happening today. I wanted to leave room and energy for the prayer time and moving furniture. My biggest goal for today is to go to bed on time.
In short, I'm OK because I was practicing margin.

I'm not very good at margin. Literally. I was that kid in elementary school who tried to cram my pages as full as possible with writing. Why should I have to stop at the vertical red line and go down to the next horizontal blue line, when there's a whole beautiful inch to the right, waiting to be filled? 

But margins on paper allow the readers space to process what they're reading and perhaps even to comment on it. They make the reader more relaxed, more attentive, and ultimately more effective. 

Margins in life matter too. In the US they're necessary, but in Cambodia they're absolutely essential. A week without margin leaves me stumbling around dazed, unable to think straight, let alone cope with stress. My 100% capacity here is about 80% of my US capacity, and since I'm still transitioning back, I'm still well below even that. I've been pretty amazed how exhausted I get just from the bare minimum: language study, cooking dinner, Bible study. I can't afford to indulge in my love of being busy  the way I (kind of) could last year in the US.

I've tried to push through the fatigue to get things done: finish my newsletter, set up my new phone, read the rest of my book. Sometimes it's worth it; sometimes I regret it; but either way, it leaves me more in need of rest later on. I know from experience that when I save tasks for later, it often works out better anyway, because I have more energy to accomplish things if I'm better-rested.

Thankfully, most expats around me have learned the value of margin and remind me to pursue it. My team leaders, my friends, and my classmates have urged me recently to prioritize self-care. They remind me to sleep, to do things I enjoy, to protect my times with God. They know if I don't, I won't be here for long. There are too many stress factors threatening to sap my energy and rob my joy. I'm thankful for their gentle admonitions and tough questions keeping me accountable. 

At its root, it's a question of trusting God. Can He take care of me and/or those around me if I go to bed on time or take my time reflecting on a Bible passage? Absolutely! But sometimes that's not the belief that my life reflects. When I get frantic and panicky, when I start convincing myself that I'm not *that* tired, and that I can and must fit just one more task (or three) into an already-full schedule, I know my heart is denying His promises to provide for me. 

The question is, do I stop and reflect when I notice these warning signs, or do I forge ahead with my impossible agenda until reality collides with me? Sure, there are times when overextending myself short-term is needed, and in those cases, I likewise need to trust God to provide for my well-being. But if it's just based on sheer stubbornness, then pushing through to stick to my agenda is a terrible idea that usually backfires.

As I prepared to return here this time around, I knew I wanted to embrace margin even when it meant saying no to a lot of good things. Now that I'm here, I'm reminded that change isn't easy - but that in Christ, it IS possible because He is making me a new creation. He doesn't need me to be strong and energetic; He needs me to be listening.

I know I won't find a perfect balance of activities that will work in every unwritten chapter of my life, or even every page of this chapter. But I can allow God to keep changing my heart so that I'm ready to stop, listen, and respond to His voice. Maybe that's the most important task on my to-do list these days: the task of prioritizing margin so I can handle days that don't go as planned.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

My house is now a beauty salon (and that's OK)

I've been back in the 'Penh for a couple weeks now, and people keep asking me what I notice about changes in the city since I moved away in 2015. It's evident that the city continues to develop rapidly, especially on my end of town. 

I asked my former housemate Michaela if she'd ever returned to our old house to visit the landlords, who used to live right behind us. "I went by, but they're gone," she replied. "Now there's a fancy salon! I can't even tell if it's the same building." 

So I stopped by this week to see for myself. It was indeed the same building, but extensively remodeled. No more gate. No more topless goddess bas-relief by the front door. No more chandelier. No more tile. No more party lights. *gasp!*



I told the staff that I had lived there for five years, and they were happy to let me look around. They seemed surprised that I'd rented it, and commented, "It was so old!" It wasn't really, maybe 20-25 years, but it was poorly maintained.

Back in the day, this neighborhood - Toul Kork - was way out in the boonies, filled with dirt roads, fields, and a few brothels. Friends were telling me this week that in 2000, they thought Logos administrators were insane for renting out here. But it took off, becoming home to many "Khmer Riche" and dubbed Phnom Penh's Beverly Hills.

On the right

Straight ahead

On the left

In Cambodia, landlords can't raise the rent if the tenants don't change. Logos teachers continuously occupied this house from the early 2000s to 2015, under the same contract. So by the time I arrived in 2010, let alone left in 2015, the rent was absurdly low for the neighborhood. No wonder the landlords weren't motivated to fix the window screens, the toilets, the leaky roof, the mold, the lights, or the doors that wouldn't latch. 

We took it upon ourselves to hire a repairman from time to time, but the five of us were never sure how long we were staying, so we likewise lacked motivation for extensive repairs. It had great security, a convenient location, and consistent electricity; we could live with the issues. It took me a while to realize that some of the issues really weren't par for the course. Our house helper, who was by no means wealthy, told us she had a better roof and fewer rodents than we did.

A couple years before we left, the landlords got an offer. Someone down the street wanted to buy the property, raze it, and build a bigger, fancier place for a relative. Not surprising. We almost had to move that year, but the deal never went through. When we left, we figured the house wouldn't stay the same for long. But it never occurred to me that it wouldn't remain a residence.



Michaela's old room

As I meandered through the downstairs, it was surreal trying to picture my kitchen and living room. The stairs helped orient me, and upstairs was largely untouched since they weren't yet using it. However, they'd installed dark wood floors and repainted everything. Now it would be perfect for the black and white party we once hosted! My door was locked, but Michaela's bedroom clearly hadn't been renovated at all. So many memories flooded back. 

I had strong feelings about that house. 

Shame, when the motodop drivers dropped me off and commented, "Wow, so big! How many people live there?" and I had to answer, "Just five." 

Frustration, when the landlords' dog bit my friends and snuck in our unlatchable front door to strew garbage across the floor. 

Disgust, when rinsing shrew droppings out of the baking pan yet again. 

But mostly peace and joy.

Despite the house's quirks and drawbacks, it was a haven. Each of my eight housemates over the years came to be precious to me. A lot of music, prayer, and laughter took place there. We welcomed visitors for rich conversations. It was our home.

Seeing what's become of my old house left me nostalgic, but not sad. I'm delighted now to be in an apartment with functioning outlets, fewer critters, and far less space to clean. I like living in a more middle-class neighborhood. In some ways, it's a relief having just one roommate and no house helper. Michaela's my only remaining in-country housemate anyway, and she and her husband live near my new apartment. I can already sense this apartment, like that house, becoming a refuge for me.

And who knows? I might even go "home" for my next haircut.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Letting go

Yesterday I noticed for the thousandth time how snugly a child fits into my arms. She fell asleep in the car, and as I carried her into the house, she was just conscious enough to wriggle in close and hold on tight. They fit a bit differently as five-year-olds than as newborns, and for different lengths of time. But when you see an adult carrying a child who wants to be held, can you deny the perfection of arm lengths and head angles? We were made for this.

I'm currently reading a great book called Boundaries, by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. One chapter points out that good parents adjust the boundaries for each phase of a child's life. Babies need attachment. A six-month-old can be overwhelmed by a parent even stepping out of the room momentarily, unsure if the parent will ever return. However, every toddler learns the word "No" and begins to separate herself from her parents by asserting her own wants and opinions. Boundaries appropriate for a 16-year-old may endanger a 6-year-old; boundaries appropriate for a 6-year-old may smother a 16-year-old. Growing up and gaining independence is a gradual process.

This and all other photos in this post are by Matthew Francis Pye. 
In general, this works beautifully, though not without bumps and tears along the way. But sometimes you don't have the luxury of holding a child's hand until she's ready to let go. That's the case with the kids I nanny.

Their birth mom gave up her rights soon after delivery.

Their adoptive mom passed away in 2014, before the youngest one's third birthday.

Their aunt moved away earlier this year.

Now I'm joining the ranks of maternal figures who haven't stuck around to see these kids reach adulthood.

In June 2015, when I met them, I was already guessing I'd be with them little more than two years before returning to Cambodia. I knew they weren't mine to keep, but I threw my heart into it anyway, about four days a week. I loved them through hugs and laughs, homework and room cleanings, tantrums and time-outs. I brought them with me to church, to the park, to my house, to the playground. They were the source of my tears, my prayers, and (some can attest) too many of my stories. They felt almost like my kids. But I couldn't offer them permanence.

Once or twice, early on, the younger two tried to call me "Mom." Nope. The oldest asked me, "Will you still be here when I'm in fourth grade?" Absolutely. "What about fifth grade?" Um... not sure but I doubt it.

Knowing that my time at their house was limited, I've tried from the beginning to encourage independence. The kids have started putting away their own laundry, doing homework without me constantly by their side, resolving disputes without my intervention. The oldest makes great spaghetti and scrambled eggs (not together!); the middle one learned yesterday how to use a carrot peeler; the youngest can buckle herself in. I'm proud of the progress they've made. They're not grown-ups, but they're growing up.

Mary Poppins the movie character inspires me. She makes kids do the right thing - and enjoy it. Mary Poppins the book character infuriates me. When the kids worry about her abandoning them, she always snaps dismissively, "I'll stay till the wind changes," or "I'll stay until my necklace chain breaks." In other words, "None of your business how long I'll stick around."

When I was young, reading her words always gave me chills. What's scarier to a child than unreliable grown-ups? That's the last legacy I wanted to leave these kids. So I've tried to be clear about my timetable, without needlessly rubbing it in. The little two especially have a hazier grasp on time. When the middle one heard six months ago that I was definitely moving back, he was devastated. I had to carefully explain to him that we still had all of spring and all of summer to enjoy together. Then he put it out of his mind almost completely.

There are still unresolved questions: Will my new Cambodian phone let me text with the oldest? How often will we skype? Will e-mail work for them? When will I visit? I'm trying to reassure them that I'll be emotionally available, without making promises I can't keep. It won't be the same, that's for sure.

The past month, we've had some special times together. Trips into Philly to a fun new playground and a historic battleship. Portraits. Tonight's our backyard campout. I'm a bit quicker to initiate hugs and a bit slower to say "downie brownie" when my arms ache from the younger two's "uppie guppy" requests. I want them to be convinced to their core that my leaving has nothing to do with them. I've shown them a video of my Cambodia teammates and invited them to hear me talk about my plans for life in Cambodia, helping them glimpse my vision for moving back there.

Preparing to leave has been a heart-wrenching act of faith. How do you tell kids to walk without you by their side, when they're still small enough to be held sometimes? It's been great to see people stepping up, though. Their dad is letting my mom take over part of my role with homework, hugs, and household. People at my church have grown attached to them and are looking out for them in various ways. We're going today to meet their new teachers - teachers that I've been praying would love these kids well. I'm hopeful that these kids will continue to get an "uppie" when they need it, so that they can keep learning to stand on their own two feet.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

My thesis, explained to 6th graders

I recently watched a video about a contest called "Dance your Ph.D." It was impressive and overwhelming. People turn their extremely complicated research into a dance performance to help everyone understand it.

Last year, when I was getting my master's degree, I wrote a thesis. It's a big research paper, kind of like a Ph.D. dissertation, but much easier and shorter. Even so, I'm not very good at explaining it in regular words, let alone in a dance. But what good is research that nobody understands? For eight months I've been procrastinating on coming back to it, but now I'm going to try using words that people use in real life. It won't be nearly as cool as a dance, but it will be better than 97 pages of gibberish, which is what I wrote in my thesis.

A thesis starts with a question (or a few questions) and then looks for the answers using research. My main question asked, "Do Cambodian students who participate in student council have more emotional intelligence and act more like the Three Goods (good students, friends, and children) than Cambodian students who don't participate?" My hypothesis said yes. Actually, the results didn't show much of a difference, which wasn't very surprising.

Every school in Cambodia has to have a student council starting in fourth grade. But unlike in America, they don't usually make a lot of decisions for the school or help communicate between students and teachers. At many or most schools, there's a list of student council members, but they don't actually meet or do anything - it's just to keep the school out of trouble with the government. At other schools, the student council helps everyone follow the school rules, and gets students in trouble when they disobey. At just a few schools, they have other responsibilities like teaching students about hygiene or organizing projects where students can help the community. It makes sense that if the student council doesn't do anything, its students won't act very different from everyone else at their school.

My follow-up question asked, "How do Cambodian students and school leaders picture emotional intelligence and the Three Goods?" I was curious whether most of them had clear ideas that were similar to each other's ideas. I also wanted to see whether they thought that emotional intelligence and the Three Goods were mostly the same or different. There were some important similarities, but the Three Goods was a lot more about people's concrete actions, not just their attitudes or people skills. For example, people said a good student should come on time to class, and a good child should help with cooking and cleaning.

Why did I pick those questions? I wanted to learn more about Cambodian schools and young people, but I didn't have a specific idea of what to study. My professor had helped other graduate students do a project on two Cambodian schools where the student councils are very active. These were two of the six schools in my study. The Cambodian government says that student councils should help students with the Three Goods, which means help them become good students, friends, and children. But the government never explains what it means to be those things. I'd heard that a lot of American schools are trying to help their students develop emotional intelligence, which means how well people deal with emotions (their own and other people's) to accomplish their goals. Emotional intelligence is useful for relationships and learning in many different ways, and I wondered whether it was similar to Cambodians' ideas about being good students, children, and friends. If I found out that student councils were good at helping Cambodians with the Three Goods and emotional intelligence, I could recommend that more Cambodian schools develop strong student council programs.

I looked for answers from three main sources:

  • One source was a literature review, which means I read lots of articles and books to find out what other researches had learned about related topics. 
  • Another source was surveys that I gave to Cambodian students from six different high schools. The surveys were mostly multiple-choice so that I could turn all the students' answers into numbers (choice A = 1, choice B = 2, etc.) and then do computer tests called statistical analysis to look for differences between groups of students in their survey answers. 
  • The third source was talking with people in Cambodian schools. I interviewed school leaders and had focus groups with about eight students at a time from several of the schools. I asked each group a set of questions and took notes on their answers. Since they spoke Khmer, not English, I needed a translator because my Khmer isn't good enough to understand everything they said. A lot of my questions asked for explanations or examples of emotional intelligence and the Three Goods. Other questions asked about the influence of Student Council on students at their school. 

My favorite part was probably reading for the literature review. I learned so many interesting things about Cambodians! Sometimes it wasn't quite on topic and I couldn't include it in my final thesis paper. For example, I started out with a question about what it means in Cambodian culture to be a citizen. Sometimes their options for participating in the community and nation are different than our options in America, or sometimes they have different views of participating because of their culture. I read about a TV show that helps teach Cambodian young people how they can participate as citizens. I also read about a lot of ways that schools around the world organize and use their student councils. Finally, I read a lot about resiliency, which is a set of things inside and around a person that help him or her to stay strong and be OK when bad things happen. I loved learning about resiliency, even though it wasn't a main focus of my thesis.

The surveys were tricky for several reasons. The translation from English to Khmer wasn't always clear, even though three Cambodians worked on it with me. I paid a Cambodian man to talk with all the schools, explain the surveys, and make sure enough students took the surveys. But one school forgot to give out the surveys and made him come back the next week. At two schools, he arrived when students were already taking their final exams for the year, so many students never took the survey. At another school, many students skipped almost half the survey questions. Maybe my survey was too long and they didn't have time, or maybe a teacher told them to skip those questions. After I saw all the problems, I wished that I had gone to all the schools with this man to watch students fill out the surveys and avoid some of these problems. But by then it was too late, so I just did the best I could with the surveys I had. It was good enough for my thesis, but it made it much harder to trust that the survey results showed an accurate picture of the students. Another limit is that students answered the questions about themselves, and many students picked the same answer (for example, "Strongly agree") for many questions in a row. So it's not clear if they really read each question and thought about it.

One survey result was really clear and surprising for me. I thought students might vote for student council members who had good grades, or who had better emotional intelligence and people skills, or who were good friends and kind to everyone. Instead, student council members were older than average for their grade, and most of them had repeated a grade. That made me think about how Cambodians always show respect to people who are older than them. Maybe they felt like the oldest students in the class should also be the leaders - even if they were the oldest because they had been struggling to learn. I did find, though, that student council members tended to have more friends. When I saw that result, I wondered: Were students with a lot of friends so popular that it was easy for them to be elected? Or did something about their actions and attitude make them good friends and good student council members? It's common for research projects to end in more questions than answers, and that was definitely my experience. The more I learned, the more questions I had.

I liked the interviews because I got to see people's faces and hear their voices and their own words. But the time always seemed so short! Some questions were also tricky for people to answer. One interesting thing was that it helped me see the differences between Student Council programs. At some schools, everyone liked and respected the Student Council, but not at every school. At some schools, students felt like they'd learned a lot about leadership through joining Student Council, but not at every school. At one school, the principal described the Student Council very differently than the students who were participating in it. He said they'd been active all year, but they said they'd only been elected a couple weeks earlier, near the end of the school year (about the time that I contacted the school). I think the principal was doing something called saving face, which means lying so you don't embarrass yourself. I tried not to embarrass him, but I think he could still tell that I didn't always believe him. He seemed glad when the interview was over.

My adviser tried to get me to publish my thesis in a scholarly journal, which is like a magazine full of research articles. I did a lot of work on it this spring and sent it to several journals, changing it a bit for each one to fit their requirements about the length and format. So far, none of them accepted it. That's fine with me... in fact, I'd be kind of mad at them if they did, because publishing a research article means you think they have important results that can be trusted, and I didn't feel that way about my results. Journals also tend to like results in numbers that prove one main point. I get that. But I felt like in my research, numbers were not the most important part, and I had many different observations that I found interesting.

However, I'm glad I wrote a thesis. It took lots of hard work, and it made me learn things that I never would have taken time for otherwise. Even if I didn't prove my hypothesis (which I was skeptical about from the beginning), it gave me a much clearer idea now of Cambodian young people and their schools. All these observations can stay in the back of my mind when I go back to help Cambodian teachers, and maybe they'll come in handy someday. And that's really why I wanted a master's degree in the first place.